Coronavirus highlights continuing marginalisation of deaf community

TV ads have no interpreter and HSE website has no information in ISL, says deaf society chair

If you’ve been watching the news on TV, you are likely to have noticed the presence of sign language interpreters alongside various officials at Covid-19 press conferences and briefings, making the information provided accessible to Irish Sign Language (ISL) users.

Indeed, for the same reason you could say that sign languages all over the world are having a bit of a ‘moment’ thanks to this heightened public exposure, leading to lots of questions from those curious about it and a huge demand for online sign language classes from those keen to learn a new skill while in self-isolation or a lockdown.

However, even as the fight against coronavirus succeeds in bringing people together, it has also highlighted the continuing inequality and marginalisation endured by deaf and hard of hearing people as they struggle to keep abreast of developments - never mind contribute to the sense of solidarity among the general population.

Lianne Quigley, chairperson of the Irish Deaf Society, says that for thousands of ISL users, there is simply not enough key Covid-19 information being provided in their native language - now officially recognised as a language through the 2017 Irish Sign Act. The failure to do so is in clear breach of Article 9 of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which says that member states must provide equal access to (among other things) information to enable them to "participate fully in all aspects of life".


Quigley says the very first Health Service Executive (HSE) and Government briefings on Covid-19 had no interpreter, leading to an uproar in the deaf community and furious lobbying to the Department of Health until interpreters were provided for every briefing. She praises the department and the HSE for now doing so consistently, but says the Government press office is still failing to provide interpreters for important briefings, such as for the Taoiseach's recent announcement on the extension of the partial lockdown.

Furthermore, she adds: “Deaf people are still very much at risk because they have to rely on the interpreted HSE briefings for almost all their information. For example, the Covid-19 information TV ads with the advice on things like washing hands, social distancing and coughing into your elbow, there’s no interpreter in those, nor does the HSE website have any information in ISL.”

However, the Irish Deaf Society has been working in recent days with the HSE on a project to translate key public information on Covid-19 into ISL, but “it’s a slow process and given the urgency of the situation, it’s very frustrating”, she said.

Brendan Lennon, head of advocacy at Chime, a national charity for deafness and hearing loss, says the TV ads are not even subtitled, further undermining the Government's policy commitments in the National Disability Inclusion Strategy. "All of this has certainly resulted in some deaf and hard of hearing people not getting full information, leading to a level of misunderstanding and misinformation," he said. "For example, some people were not aware of the need to wash hands for 20 seconds, and some thought that social distancing was only necessary when people had symptoms."

Dr John Bosco Conama, a Trinity College Dublin academic who is seeking to become the first deaf person to be elected to the Seanad, said that it was "annoying, tiresome and time-consuming" that the authorities have to be reminded of their obligations. "This is not satisfactory at all because we all are expected to comply with the orders and requests. So we are entitled to receive information first hand."

“It is often said that solidarity will get us through this crisis, and we have to make sure that we, as ISL users, can contribute to the solidarity,” he added.

Dr Conama recently tweeted examples of State briefings in other countries to show how far things have come, including in Northern Ireland, where they had not one, but two interpreters: one for British Sign Language and the other for Irish Sign Language. Both languages are used in Northern Ireland's deaf communities.

Increase in online learners

Not surprisingly, the increased prominence of sign languages in public life has prompted a deluge of frequently asked questions, such as: why is sign language not universal? Why, indeed, are there two very different sign languages used in Northern Ireland? (Hint: as for many questions from outsiders about life in Northern Ireland, the answer is both simple and complex.)

It’s also prompted huge interest in learning ISL online, possibly in response to the usefulness of the language as a way to communicate across physical and social distances - including windows.

At Dublin City University, where Dr Elizabeth Mathews of the School of Inclusive and Special Education has been running online instructional classes in ISL on YouTube, she has seen a 1,000 per cent increase in traffic in recent weeks, along with increased interest in a project she is leading to develop a new ISL glossary of science terms.

“Perhaps it is the presence of ISL interpreters at the nightly briefings from the Department of Health, but we have seen a considerable jump in interest in our online ISL tuition videos since the Covid-19 closures commenced,” said Dr Mathews.

Elsewhere, a parent organisation, Our New Ears, has teamed up with Samantha Kelly and ISL teacher Teresa Farrell to provide an online introduction course to ISL.

But as the country strives to ensure no one is left behind in dealing with the coronavirus crisis, it's worth noting the words of UK deaf journalist Charlie Swinbourne. Writing in his news blog, Limping Chicken, he said that, on one level, being deaf is a bit like social distancing: "Being unable to easily communicate with those around you and even, in some cases, those you are closest to."

This is not to say that deaf people will find dealing with what’s happening at the moment any easier, “but it might just mean it’s not quite as unusual for us as it is for the rest of the population”, he said, adding that it may help more hearing people understand part of what deafness is like.